Fleeing war and bloodshed, the desperation of thousands of refugees seeking protection in Europe haunts us daily. As one nation after another pulls down shutters on its borders, what the world needs is a unifying voice. Could the Dalai Lama be that voice?
Friend to A-list celebrities and world leaders, the 80-year-old has been playing to packed audiences at the O2 in London this month, and received a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday when he joined Patti Smith on stage at Glastonbury in June. It’s easy to forget this rock ‘n’ roll Dalai Lama is also a refugee who has spent most of his life in exile.
Born Lhamo Dhondup in Tibet in 1935, aged two he was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama and lived under the tutelage of monks from the age of six. At 15 he was declared ruler of Tibet but under violent oppression by Chinese troops during the Tibetan Uprising he fled to India in 1959. He has remained in exile ever since.
As part of a global tour, he is in the UK to discuss compassionate responses to humanitarian crises. He’s a guest of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, with whom he co-organised this symposium. It’s in Lord Williams’ grand but modernist residence that The Big Issue meets His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (below). We are welcomed like old friends.
He first shakes hands with our photographer and then, because her assistant has his arms full carrying equipment, he playfully tugs his beard instead. He keeps hold of my hand and guides me to the far side of the room. “Come. Sit.”
I appreciate your work, helping the homeless – a good service to humanity
The Dalai Lama is warm, jovial and speaks with clear, passionate conviction, often punctuating answers with hearty laughter and even the occasional slap of my thigh, as he discusses how to make the world a better place, improve the lives of others and – of course – his favourite magazine.
“I appreciate your work, helping the homeless – a good service to humanity,” he begins.
The Big Issue: I could say the same about you! You are probably the world’s most famous refugee. After being displaced for so long, do you find something other than a geographical location to belong to?
There is a Tibetan saying that is quite wise: wherever you are happy is your home, whoever is kind to you are your parents. Of course, I have some special relations with India, and I like Europe. At least it is clean! Look around and see brothers and sisters, then you feel close [to them]. The emphasis should not be, “I am Tibetan” or “I am Buddhist”. If so, you yourself make some kind of distance.
Do you feel a connection to those fleeing Syria and other places looking for a better life?
Naturally, naturally. When I meet new refugees, I always mention that I am senior refugee! It is a man-made problem, with various reasons. Previously, mainly political reasons – different nations had a negative attitude towards each other and a large number of people become refugees. Nowadays there is a religious basis for these refugees coming. Killing because of different religious faiths… Unthinkable. All religious traditions talk [about] compassion, love, forgiveness, tolerance, in the meantime these religious concepts are making division and people are killing each other… Terrible.
All religions preach peace but they are so often used to justify war. Is there a dark side to religions that some people are attracted to or is it a dark side that exists in all of us?
[There is] not a dark side on the religious side. The concept of one truth, one religion is centuries old. Here I always make the distinction – in an individual’s case the concept of one truth, one religion is very useful. In terms of community it is unrealistic. You should have the concept of several truths, several religions. Today I think the Muslim population is around one billion, and Christian population over one billion. Then Hindus about 600 million, Buddhist maybe 800 or 900 million. Either one cannot eliminate the other one.
That does not stop some people trying. You have to live together. It is much better to have mutual respect, mutual understanding and religious harmony. It is possible. We have to work. I myself am totally committed to religious harmony.
You have said that Europe cannot be expected to accept all refugees and that the problems have to be solved in the countries the people are fleeing. How is that possible without armed intervention?
At the moment it looks impossible. One hundred per cent change is impossible. Change is gradual. We have to work with an optimistic attitude. At this moment two groups consider each other the enemy, no sense of reconciliation. But try. Attempt talk. Meet. Nine times failure, nine times re-effort.
Nine times failure, nine times re-effort
Recently you tweeted that “It’s unrealistic to think that the future of humanity can be achieved through prayer or good wishes alone; what we need is to take action”. Social media makes it easy to express good wishes, solidarity and to sign petitions – but does that give a false sense of having done good?
Yes, actual change will take place through action, not from wishes, not through prayer. If we had the opportunity of seeing God, then God may say, “Trouble? You started, you have to solve! I did not create these problems, I created compassionate human beings!” One time in Hiroshima, Nobel Peace laureates came together for a meeting. Other speakers stated, “Pray to God to bring peace”. Then my turn! I am usually quite frank. I said, “Peace will not come through prayer, peace must come through our action”. When I expressed that, many Japanese who before were very solemn applauded!
Pope Francis has started his own Twitter account, do you think he was copying you?
I don’t know.
He is seen as a reformist. Do you think your influence played a part in the direction of the Catholic Church?
That I don’t know. He has been making changes to the Vatican bureaucracy, that is very good. He also speaks quite forcefully about the environmental issue, that is wonderful. I admired when he dismissed a German bishop who in the church would talk of contentment but in his own private life had very expensive furniture and these things. If the same thing happened with a mischievous lama then the leader should speak and take some action! That behaviour is very harmful to Buddhist teaching, and preserving Buddhist teaching is more important than preserving friendships with mischievous people!
Do you know more about what is happening in Tibet now than you have done through the decades because of technology allowing people to share their lives?
I consider myself a free spokesman for Tibetan people; in order to be a spokesman you ought to know the ground situation, people’s real feelings and desires. Before 1979, occasionally some refugee would come, otherwise it was quite difficult. Since the Open Door Policy in 1979, Tibetans from outside can go there – although with restrictions – and Tibetans from outside can meet their relatives, although also with a lot of restrictions.
The younger generation can carry our traditions whether there is Dalai Lama or not. It doesn’t matter
The Chinese economy is not as strong or stable as it once was, do you think there could be a crisis coming – both economically and politically?
This I don’t know. Some people say the present economic crisis is actually to do with the political system. Some Chinese peasants and workers came to see me. Their faces showed that they have difficulties. I paid special attention and asked their condition. It was really very sad. The only consideration of local officials is money. They use their position to make money, not take care of the people in their own area – although it is a socialist country. The Communist Party should be a party of the people. The Chinese judiciary system should raise itself up to an international standard. That is very important.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
China recently cancelled concerts by the band Bon Jovi because they had previously shown support for you. Does that decision backfire when it makes the world aware of restrictions on freedom of expression?
It is narrow-minded, short-sighted. There is a lack of a wider perspective. Another drawback is censorship: 1.3 billion Chinese people have every right to know the reality. Once they know the reality, they also have the ability to judge what’s right, what’s wrong. Censorship, distorted information, some information being hidden is totally wrong. In any case, with modern technology you cannot control [information] 100 per cent. The younger generation has more access with the outside world and their way of thinking is much different. Then it makes a disgrace of the government and the leader. It is foolish. The elder generation’s mentality is very much connected to a wartime mentality – secrecy, suppression, suspicion. It has become part of their way of thinking. The president, Xi Jinping, seems to realise this is outdated thinking so there is certainly something changing.
Will there be a void left after the end of your time as spiritual leader and your successor taking over? Are you worried about the consequences of that void?
No. No worry. As early as 1969 I expressed that whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not, it is up to the people. I have no concern. The real method for the preservation of Buddha Dharma is study and practice. For example, there is no Buddha reincarnation but [he has been] teaching now over 2,000 years. The younger generation can carry our traditions whether there is Dalai Lama or not. It doesn’t matter.
If you had to pick one fundamental social change you would like to see in the world within your lifetime, what would it be?
My life [may be] another 15 years or 30 years then no more. A big change within the next 30 years I think is difficult. The modern education system is very much orientated about external values, not taking care of our inner values. Traditionally, our inner values totally relied on religious faith [but] now out of seven billion people, over one billion are non-believers. And among the believers also you see some deceivers – the German bishop I mentioned! As we are getting older, how much I have to say or how much I have to hide, we always calculate that! Through that way, suspicion and distrust comes, and distrust is the worst enemy of compassion, isn’t it?
Actual change will take place through action, not from wishes, not through prayer
If you say so!
Basic human nature is compassionate. Every child is fresh. If a mother shows a negative face to a child, they will be afraid. Smiles they like! They don’t care [about] your faith, nation, family background. Grown-ups, yes. Now we are putting in their mind that money is more important, power is more important, religious difference and faith is more important. The strength of that basic nature is reduced.
So we should smile more?
Study about emotion and the mind should be considered an academic subject, not a religious matter, from kindergarten up to university level. I think the generation of 21st century may see a different world if we make an attempt now.